Saturday, 28 February 2009

Breker and Calder: Pals in Paris

Hitler offed himself over sixty years ago, cowering in his Berlin bunker. But to judge from current political spleen in the German press, you’d think he was still around. Swiss Jew Dani Levy’s new film, “Mein Führer,” dares to tickle smiles from Germans over Adolf as a bed wetter who plays with toy battleships in his bathtub. And the Social Democrats are fighting the old DDR lefties over whether folksinger Wolf Biermann should be made an honorary citizen of Berlin--he’s the heroic East German whose citizenship the DDR brass revoked in 197--while he was singing in West Germany! And to show how nasty polit-bureaucrats can be, they emptied his East Berlin apartment and shipped its contents to him!

But those snarls are minor league compared with the SuperSnit that ensued when a minor little gallery in Schwerin (the capital of Mecklenburg/Vorpommern) decided to show the sculpture of Arno Breker (1900-1991), Hitler’s so-called favorite sculptor—at least those works which escaped the looting and destruction of the victorious Allies in 1945. My German wife’s relatives in Schwerin were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, so I snuck in a long look at Breker’s work.

Most art historians concentrate on details like his arrival with Hitler and Albert Speer in Paris the day the French were defeated in 1940. They were there because Hitler wanted to look at all the great monuments so he could outdo them in his planned makeover of Berlin code named Germania. Flying back to Berlin with Hitler, the dictator told him how many complaints about him he had received in 1934-35. When Breker asked him why they snuck into Paris instead of driving triumphantly down the Champs Elysee, Hitler said “I do not want to do that to this great cultural people.”

Still Alfred Rosenberg, editor of the Nazi newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter (The People’s Obsever), accused Breker of being a “decadent”. But he never joined the Party, regardless of how many commissions and favours Hitler sent his way, including a full professorship at the Berlin Academy of Arts and a ranch north of Berlin, Jäckelbruch. He won the silver medal for his two sculptures for the 1936 Berlin Olympics (the judges awarded him the gold, but Hitler for diplomatic reasons, gave it to his ally, Italy)

In a symbolic encounter when he got the silver medal, Hitler playfully punched him on the shoulder, and told Breker he didn’t want him living in a garret. He arranged for a spread worthy of a Duke. Breker spent so much time and energy defending his Parisian friends from the Gestapo (saving both Picasso and Jean Marais) that Albert Speer warned him he was playing with fire. Breker ignored him, accepting invitations to dine with Hitler at the Chancellery so he could intervene for more persecuted artists and Jews, like his dealer Alfred Flechtheim and publisher Peter Suhrkamp. Hitler’s attitude was that artists knew nothing about politics, that they were hapless Parsifals. It appears that Hitler was compensating for his own failure as an artist in his regard for Breker. And the sculptor appeared impervious to German taunts that he was “the Frenchman” and the gossip that his Greek mistress/wife, Demetra Messala, was a Jewess.

He certainly was no anti-Semite. He made a bust of his close friend Max Liebermann, and for his widow, a death mask. When the Nazis cashiered Max as President of the Academy of Art, he continued to stand by his friend. (Incidentally, the main instigator of the squall over the Schwerin exhibition, was the current president of that most prestigious German art association, Klaus Steckel, a poster designer who cancelled his projected 2007 exhibition at Schwerin. In the 1980’s Staeckel was also an organizer of a No Nazi Art in German Museum movement. After the war, even artists he had saved ratted on him to the deNazification officials. Finally, he was fined 100 marks for being a “fellow traveller”. The American General in charge offered him the alternative penalty of creating a fountain for Donauwörth. He scornfully rejected that alternative penalty as undignified extortion of a defeated enemy. Breker perhaps felt that the Allies looting or destroying 90% of his work at Jäclelbruch was punishment enough.

The first astonishment I discovered in researching Breker’s career was that Alexander Calder worked and bunked in his atelier in 1927. Calder’s animated Circus—tiny wire performers moved through gears to German march music. His “act” was a sensation among Paris literati, who crowded into his bedroom, SRO (sitting room only), to watch this sensational preliminary to his invention of the Mobile. The French highly regarded the regular circus, with respected critics evaluating their performance. It was Calder’s instant passport to the artistic community, Man Ray (another Philly!), Jean Cocteau, Maurice de Vlaminck, the Delaunays, Isamu Noguchi, and others reveled in Calder’s funky invention.

Breker’s reputation remains contested to this day. He was the eldest son of a stone mason and gravestone maker in Northwest Germany. At age 15, he saw a Rodin at the Dusseldorf Museum of art which moved him to study sculpture. During World War I he took over his father’s workshop while he was at the front. Between 1920 and 1925 he studied sculpture and architecture at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art. In 1927 he moved to Paris where the Jewish dealer Alfred Flechtheim took him on. On the way to a drawing trip in Tunisia, he introduced himself to Aristide Maillol who was moved to call him the Michelangelo of Germany. In 1932, the Prussian Ministry of Culture gave him a fellowship in Rome where he studied classical sculpture. In 1934, the great Jewish painter Max Liebermann, also the president of the Academy of Art, counseled him to return to Germany. Und so weiter.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Proto-Feminist Trumps Patriarchitecture: Marie-Elisabeth Lüders

Not surprisingly, the first critic to take the true measure of Weissenhof was a woman. The Kinder, Kirche, and Kueche crowd was dreaming of a perfect building; the baby tender was worried about the effect of all that glass on her children! Marie-Elisabeth Lüders mocked the efforts of Mies in the Weissenhof development in an essay called A Construction, Not a Dwelling, Die Form (October 1927, p.6. (In Anton Kaes et al., The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (University of California Press, 1995),pp.468-9.)

Whoever has carefully examined the houses in the Weissenhof development is forced to pose the astonishing question of whether the majority of them have not been designed and executed in complete ignorance of all the things a family needs to make a dwelling a home. One asks if the builders know nothing about the daily requirements of running a household. Just a couple of examples: There are houses there (built by Mies van der Rohe) with gigantic casement windows on the staircases, going all the way down to ground level, which when opened completely block the landings and represent an unheard-of danger to children in the house. In front of one of these windows there is even a deck extending over the front door without a railing. These windows themselves have three horizontal bars at the level of the landing, which, however, are set so far apart that children six years and older can very easily climb through them. Inhabitants of two- and three-room apartments generally do not have nannies to conduct each child carefully down the stairs or to get scooters, sleds,etc. past the ground-level windows.

To Ms. Lüders it was apparent that these dreamers never put down their T-squares long enough to think about how people would live in their tabula rasa visions. She notes that the Bauhaus motto of bringing the landscape into the house results in apartments that have windows extending all the way down to the ground. (Neat for the Ezra Stollers of this world, but a palpable pain for mere living inhabitants.) Some of these walls are made entirely of glass to the north and the south in the same room. (Where was Doctor Farnsworth when she was needed!) In such rooms, she pointed out, there is a constant draft over the floor, a cause for no little concern when small children are present.

These rooms, whose windows cannot be outfitted with shutters because they are too big and set too high, are burning hot in the summer, and the light is so blinding that small children in the daytime and somewhat older children in the early evening hours cannot sleep in them. In some of the apartments the landscape has been brought into the larder as well. The window except for a very narrow socle at the bottom, takes up the entire wall, and the larders are facing south! If the builders are perhaps assuming that man lives by curdled milk alone in the summertime, they are mistaken. Dazzled visitors to Gropius masterpiece in Dessau are disconcerted to learn that in the winters teachers and students had to wear woolen socks and boots to keep from freezing to death! So much were these innovators uncritically in love with glass.

And site planning was equally defective. To a kitchen with windows to the south, there can be no dispute as to the temperature. . .in the summer. This kitchen, however, suffers from a further serious error: the gas stove quite small for the number of people intended for the apartments located opposite the window against a narrow wall between two doors arranged at right angles to each other. First of all, one turns one’s back to the light while cooking; second, every time one of the doors is opened the gas flame is disrupted; and, third, it is a miracle if everyone who goes through the door does not knock a pot off the stove or come too close to the flame. Alas, the two bedrooms are half buried underground and face north. Talk about insensitivity to temperature.

She goes on with her checklist of architectural howlers a large window behind a tub that can’t be opened for cleaning. You’d need a ladder for the inside and professional cleaners for the outside. And she notices the complete absence of a place for storing wet coats, galoshes, or umbrellas---while at the same time there is a sixty square foot terrace! (Gotta use those flat roofs.) The apartments were fully furnished with expensive furniture and art works but lacked washstands and comfortable bathrooms. When apartments are shown fully furnished, as is universally the case with the Weissenhof development, it seems to us that the goal should not be to display expensive furniture (which, incidentally, would certainly be too expensive for the inhabitants of these houses); rather the visitors should be taught something about the practical possibilities for furnishing their homes; they should be trained in the tasteful satisfaction of daily needs, as things are and not as they are imagined by the aesthetic sense of Mr. So-and-So. Alas, what would Ms. Lüders have made of Mieslater neurotic obsessions in Tugenhat and elsewhere of leaving the furniture where I left it! (And he meant right where he left it!)

Indeed the flexible Ms. Lüders had silently identified the major vice of the New Architecture, what I call the Procrustean Bed Syndrome. When I first visited Weissenhof (in my and its 75th year), I had been looking forward to such a visit for as long as I had taken architecture seriously. I can't tell you how disappointed I was with a few exceptions: Behrens, Oud, Stam. You could pay to live in a Mies bin. And the ludicrous balcony were so tiny, it was hard to imagine embracing a lover in the moonlight on such a travesty. Especially repugnantly cold and unlivable were the two storey Corbu houses.

This year it has been officially designated as unlivable, its the tourist center for the Weissenhof visitors, who come in droves, like they were visiting the Holy Land. I am still trying to work out the etiology of this disease of illusions. How can so many genuflect so witlessly before such an egregious collection of architectural misfits! Oddly, when my first visit was over, I wandered across the street to the Friedrich Ebert Houses (named after the President of the Weimar Republic). It was also a coop, funded by the Social Democratic administration of Stuttgart. Built in the same year, 1927, about which the docent in the Weissenhof Visitors Center had not a clue. It turns out the SPD head had asked Mies to collaborate he was having hassles with the city administration over his casual attitude about little things like water and sewer lines.

But Mies wanted to fly solo. He had assembled an A-list of the Modernists, and he wasn’t going to have his party crashed by any old Social Democrats. When you visit Weissenhof, cross the street and ask yourself: Where would you rather live? The only thing that astonished me more than my disappointment with this world famous Ikon was the willful ignorance of the Weissenhoffers about the Friedrich Ebert Siedlung. That seems to me incorrigible ignorance, stemming from an almost theological belief in the Bauhaus heritage, unexamined. Perhaps the Germans need cultural heroes after the artistic disasters of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the Teutonic preferences of that weather vane of world architecture, Phillip Johnson, who's never seen a New Wave he wouldn’t surf on, canonized Mies and Gropius. Johnson, a Cleveland steel millionaire’s son, had a German nanny, and he found his first homosexual experiences in the wide open Berlin of the 1920s, when he even flirted with Nazism in its earliest phases. Whatever the source of the Bauhaus-inflated reputation, the constant recycling of the warehouse of memorabilia in the Berlin Bauhaus Archive, the Weimar Bauhaus Museum’s deeper and deeper scraping of its barrel for new and more and more under-unattended exhibitions. Only the Bauhaus College in Dessau, under the innovative direction of the Afghani Dr. Omar Akbar, offers a significant future for the idealism of the Bauhaus--and he is the object of a spiteful campaign by the latest (last?) generation of Bauhustlers.

My own eye tells me the Bauhaus originals were anally retentive ideologues. All the more so when I see exhibitions like the recent one on Gio Ponti at the London Design Museum and of Denmark's centennial celebration of Arne Jacobsen.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009


The frigid way the last two generations of Calders are stiffing Philadelphia’s most celebrated three-generation sculptural family is a disgrace to the family’s name. And a pain to the potential pleasures of generations of Phillies to come.

Alexander S.C. Rower—grandson of “Sandy” Calder (1898-1976) and current head of the Calder Foundation in New York— wouldn’t even answer the telephone when the elaborate $70 million plan to link a Tadao Ando-designed museum for Calder with the Art Museum and the Rodin on the Parkway was suggested. So the plan just fell through. Governor Rendell had snatched $15 millions from his taut budget, and retired cable magnate and phillyanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest promised to raise $15 millions more. Now Gerry concludes: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead duck.” The real blockers appear to be the six Calder heirs who are greedy beasts unwilling to negotiate 99-year leases for Sandy Calder’s eye-catching stabiles.

Which reminds me sadly of my last visit to Louisiana Museum just north of Copenhagen. It has brought together the most glorious ensemble of Sandy’s mobiles/stabiles on its dining terrace, sited so that you’re looking through a clutch of Calders to the Oresund, which separates Denmark from Sweden. I was so distracted from my lunch by this delicious view that the Danes sharing my table inquired if there was something wrong with my food, so distraught looked I.

“No,” I replied, “I’m just envying you your Calder visual dessert.” And I went on to explain that my home town was Philadelphia, and that I was a certified nut when it came to Calder’s work, from his tiny circus ensembles to the humongous Chicago City Hall Stabile. And I further explained that three generations of sculpting Calders were Philly’s hidden pride and joy. And that we were having one hell of a time getting the heirs to lease some Golden Sandies to a projected museum along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. They were astonished that little old Denmark was way ahead of the artist’s hometown in celebrating his ouevre.

Heh, damn it. We can’t let those greedy heirs deny our town a Calder Future. I still remember with utter joy that day in 1962 when Ed Bacon took me and Joe Carreiro (then head of Industrial Design at Philadelphia College of Art) to the Penn statue atop City Hall that Sandy’s gramp sculpted. From there we could see the Swann Fountain at Logan Square that Sandy’s dad had created later. Indeed, that 360-degree view was my Philly baptism as a Detroit immigrant.

(There too was Claes Oldenburg’s “Clothespin,” a.k.a. “The Kiss.” And further off Robert Indiana’s LOVE. Not to forget those stunning initials, PSFS, atop our first skyscraper at 12th and Market, designed by William Lascaze and George Howe. Or the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges. Every Philadelphia school child deserves the Bacon Saunter we two took that day with our most creative city planner. It is the ideal place to gawk at our Public Art.)

Let me use Bacon’s mind to solve the Calder impasse. Bacon induced Louie Kahn’s protégé, Richard Saul Wurman, to write a guide to Philadelphia architecture for elementary and secondary school children. I envision an analogous Calder Walk Guide, beginning with a sneaky preview of the Calders in the Art Museum collection. (The National Gallery of Art already offers an on-line saunter through the giant retrospective it created in his honor.)

Then let’s let a teacher who has been enlightened by a Rickie Wurman-level guidebook on Philly outdoor sculpture lead a lively crowd of young-uns down our grand Champs Elysées, grandly named after our greatest tinkerer, Old Ben. The tour guide can point out that it was Marcel Duchamps, our greatest Urinator, who dubbed Sandy’s moving works “mobiles.” And later Jean Arp dubbed his stationary jobs “stabiles.” (We’ll keep quiet as the kids pass by Sly Stallone’s reeking Rocky Balboa sculpture, a stabile that wishes it were a mobile.)

As I looked into Sandy Calder’s life, I became all the more certain that his bio would appeal to those myriad students who don’t quite dig the Kultur thing. It surprised me to learn that Sandy’s parents, both artists, dissuaded young Alexander from pursuing an artistic career because it was such an iffy source of income. So Sandy studied mechanical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology! It was a while later, serving below-decks on a San Francisco-New York passenger cruiser, that he experienced his artistic epiphany. While steaming past Guatemala, he looked out a porthole, and lo, the full moon rose from the sea just as the sun was sinking. Wowie, mused our hero.

When he got back to New York, Sandy enrolled in the Art Students League. And before you could say Pablo Picasso, he was in Paris (1926) showing off his Cirque Calder—tiny wire figures made to move by the gears and motors this onetime engineer brought to his muse. It dazzled his fellow artists, who were already accustomed to quirky Phillies, as they had just learned to love Man Ray’s strange photographs. The Cirque Calder so beguiled Arno Breker (1900-91), soon to gain notoriety as Hitler’s sculptor (and later undeserved obliquity), that Calder was invited to share Breker’s atelier. His career had begun.

Let’s not let it get bogged down in a relative diatribe.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

A Jones for E. Fay Jones

Sometime in the decade before I left Academe (my mother's death in January 1982 freed me to check out completely) I began to think Southern again.

It happened fortuitously because of an out of control passion for quilts and a serendipitous meeting with Jim Wayne Miller. Miller I met at an Appalachian Writers Workshop near Hazard, KY. (I just had to check out that eponymic venue.) Appalshop, the creative media center also caught my eye. But it was Jim who turned me on to App Lit.

He was something. When he came back from the war, the high-toned Vanderbilt English Department was having none of this uppity cracker boy. But the German department was dying on the vine from the Nuremberg Syndrome. So pragmatic Jim majored in German, got a job teaching at Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, and never turned back. He mentored far and wide in the Midsouth, an exemplary pro bono critic whom the Vanderbilt snobs taught to be demotic.

I have never met Wendell Berry, but his kind of authenticity was the breath of fresh air I needed after stifling in the hot air of Upper Academe. My first quilt I bought in Little Rock, when I was researching a four part series that appeared Horizon (Tuscaloosa, AL) called Twenty Museums You've Never Heard Of (1981). In Arkansas I also discovered E. Fay Jones, that quirky original from Fayetteville, when he got the Gold Medal from the AIA. Fay Who? I asked myself astonished, until I saw his chapels in the woods with my own goggled eyes.

I remember him telling me how a snooty New York critic had asked him condescendingly when he got the Gold Medal, Don't you think it's a bit anomalous that you haven't even done a museum? Unfazed, Fay pointed out that seventy five percent of the members of the AIA worked in ateliers of fewer than five people and they did good work of the kind their clients asked for, thank you very much. It was this freedom from bushwa that appealed to me on several Southern fronts.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Getting to the Russian Avant-Garde

I’ve been hooked on the Russian avant-garde ever since the New York Guggenheim displayed the collections of a Greek tobacco man who stashed away the forbidden art for decades knowing it was too important to be lost. There was a serendipity at that exhibition the night they did a fashion show of the avant-garde dress related to the paintings and sculpture. The assigned photographer didn't show up so they asked me to shoot in his place. So my slides are in the Guggenheim collection! And when the show moved to Indianapolis, the Star printed a batch of them in a Sunday color feature. But that was just dumb Irish luck. In the summer of 1981 I signed on for a three week Art Tour of the Soviet Union mainly because I wanted to see the exhibition Paris/Moscow that explored the interactions between their diverse avant-gardes.

So the first thing I did when I checked into my Moscow hotel was to go down in the lobby and buy tickets from Intourist. Yikes. The lady said they were all sold out. No way. Sorry. What a bummer. That meant that the ten days I was booked to spend fighting the sands of Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand were all I was going to get of Russian art. (As it turned out, that wasn't half as bad as I feared.) The next morning I thought I try another Intourist functionary.

She was just as encouraging as her colleague had been dismissive. Of course, she enthused, handing me a ticket--dated, alas, for three weeks after we would have left Russia. She laughed at my worries. As long as the date has not been passed you'll be all right. Skeptically, I showed up the next morning at the Pushkin Museum where two soldiers who had majored in Nasty at the Military Academy showed the premature ticket to each other, laughing uproariously. Hmm.

They told me curtly to come back on the appointed date, pointing to it with gestures which implied I was a moron. Not about to give up my date Liubov Popova and her mates without a fight, I came back the next morning to find the soldiers replaced by a mere guard who waved me through without even looking at the date! Strange country, I began to conclude. Since the Cyrillic alphabet is simply gibberish to me I had gone to the trouble of buying the French edition of the catalog so I could get the most out of my visit. Now I began to be plagued by Russian visitors who wanted to know where I got the catalog.(They weren't selling the Russian one because the authorities didn't like the politics behind the decades-long suppression of the art works!)

The next day I came back to continue my looking, and collared a man who looked like a curator to see if he'd let me in again with my post dated ticket. I spoke to him in French. He begged off because of an important meeting. I stood at the entrance looking in vain for another official who might fall for my sorry story. None came. But the first curator, apparently stricken with guilt, quietly waved me in, secretly almost. I had still one other angle to play. The Evening Bulletin's art editor, Nessa Forman, had agreed to look at a review on spec before I had flown off to Russia. So I wanted to palaver with the woman director of the museum. I decided this was a back door job.

The babuskas at the front entrances were looking at me more and more suspiciously. So I had to deal with the guard at the back door. I tried French on him. No go. Maybe he had been a German prisoner of war. BINGO. He understood my German, itself a miracle, given my pitiful one year of instruction at the University of Detroit thirty years before. He picked up his phone to convey my request for an interview to his boss, then put it down. Then picked it up. And put it down again. Finally, he just waved me through. I had just had a crash lesson in how authority worked in the Soviet Union. If I turned out to be a chump, he'd get the lumps. So he just put me on my own. The director was not all that helpful. But she did want to look at my copy of the catalog! She thumbed through it full of curiosity as she answered my questions without any real enthusiasm.

I loved the St. Petersburg stop on our itinerary most of all. Except that I had the trots the day we were assigned the Hermitage. I got to see a lot of Andre Derain and Henri Matisse between pit stops. I swear I tried out all the bathroom facilities in that great far flung building. Not a word of Russian was needed for the babuskas to comprehend my distress. They hurriedly accompanied me to the nearest facilities the minute they saw my panicky eyes. Thankfully, there was a bucket in the bus with which I finished my ordeal minutes before the rest of the group piled back on the bus. I was sitting in the front seat as far from the mess I had made as possible.

I mentioned our trek into Central Asia. The silliest part was the beginning of our flight from Moscow. We hung out at the airport for several hours, with nary an idea of when the flight was scheduled. Then suddenly, having dozed off mercifully in abominably uncomfortable sofas, we were herded into the dark across the tarmac to the now waiting Ilyushin. It was my first long term encounter with Islam, except for transitory episodes in North Africa and Turkey many years before.

The mosque architecture was as dazzling as the surroundings were run down. But one night I shall never forget happened in Samarkand. There was a full August moon in the outdoor jazz café. The quartet was headed by a jazz violinist who was a dead ringer for Joseph Stalin physically and played as well as Joe Venuti. We went crazy with applause after the first set. Before you could say Shazam, we were blessed with a cold bottle of vodka as a gesture of fraternity. From Joe Venuti Stalin himself. It more than compensated for those stupid moments trying to get into and at the Pushkin.

Sunday, 22 February 2009


Outraged at escalating gas prices? Tired of being denied the pleasures of great landscapes because you have to concentrate on driving? My German girl friend and I have good news for you. We just spent two weeks on a Greyhound Ameripass (now called Discovery Pass) to show her the Midwest I grew up in fifty years ago. St Paul (where my son Michael the video artist lives), Duluth, St. Ignace, Mackinaw Island, Tawas City (where we had our summer cottage), Bay City, (where I went to boarding school, but which is now a business center), Detroit (my home town), E. Lansing (where I first taught and finished graduate school), Muskegon, Traverse City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Lacrosse, Minneapolis, St. Paul.

We both survived! And we even learned how to avoid problems, which are inevitable in this cheap form of mass transportation. The pass cost roughly $300 each for 15 days, less for seniors and foreigners who either buy it in their home country or at the Port of New York Authority on Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street. You can use credit cards.

Here are a few of our favorite tips:

1. Keep the Greyhound 800 number handy. You will need to use it often.

2. Have a pocketful of quarters--for lockers to liberate you for a stroll on a layover, of which there are many, some voluntary, others involuntary. For newspapers to zero in on local events (even a few dimes are useful for there are still some newspapers and telephones which will work for 35 cents.

3. Stock up on a few hotel chains address books. I belong to Days Inn's September Club, so we started with its members. They promise you up to 30% off for advance phone reservations, but never delivered in late May, a sign that their barking is less advantageous than their bite. We ended up in a lot of Holiday Inns because of their companion flies free promotion. By the way, USA Today publishes a lot of those chain promotions. Their weather page is practically indispensable for our kind of travel. We also used Radisson which is notoriously fiscally compassionate to seniors. As a Hilton Honors Club member, we booked the St. Paul Airport Hilton for our first night, in deference to my friend's long flight from Frankfurt. Serendipitously, it adjoins the Minnesota River Nature Preserve, which gave us a fine tour down to the riverside, finally terminated by squadrons of hungry mosquitoes.

4. Don't be shy in asking for favors. When I groused that I thought Honors Club members always got free breakfasts, the clerk gave us passes to the Executive Lounge on the top floor, where the view competed with the cuisine for our attention.

5. Be flexible. When Traverse City unleashed a rainstorm on us that would have intimidated Noah (but only after we had gnoshed fried walleye at the Bum Steer), we scotched our stay there and backtracked to Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Benton Harbor to Chicago. There we really lucked out at the Printer's Row Book Fair, and had a glorious reunion with my favorite Windy Chicagoan, Studs Terkel, who recalled his visit to my home in Philly in 1975 for a "Working" autograph party as if it were yesterday. Then he left the Green Room to expatiate on his newest book, on Death! The crowd (including me) went nutsy over his extemp shticks.

6. Ponder skeds carefully. For example, there is only one service to St. Ignace from Duluth, begins at 6 p.m., and with an hour break in Escanaba (l-2 a.m.!), it got to St. Ignace at 5:30 a.m. Alas, the motels are strung along for miles north of the bus station, our Days Inn being almost two miles away, with no taxi drivers awake! Luckily, we sweet talked the bus driver into Greyhounding us right up to the motel office. For a $5 tip, we got to sack in after watching a mind bending sunrise over Lake Superior on our balcony.

7. Some local lines fill in the increasing blanks in Greyhound's network, for example, Indian Trails in Michigan and Jefferson Lines in Wisconsin. You have to know ahead of time if there is such a link, for example, in our case between St. Ignace and Tawas, and have a special ticket written for the adjoining line by the Greyhound office. Sometimes this can be a Catch 22. When we arrived in Traverse City from Muskegon, the Greyhound office had already closed and wouldn't be open when we were to go to Mackinac, if we hadn’t been flooded out. The bigger Greyhound stations can print you out a computer schedule of options for your next move, but you have to be there early to get that service. (The same is available by 800 numbers, but not as clear as the print outs.)

8. The biggest problem we faced was choosing a hotel near the bus station. In Chicago we lucked out at the Holiday Inn City Center, a short two blocks from the bus station, and a straight 10 minute shot to Michigan Avenue. Hotel chain books rarely give you the bus station's location (airport always, Amtrak often), so you've got to juggle between Greyhound's and the hotel chains' 800 number to do long range geography. The trouble is that the cheapest chains are on the Interstate peripheries. If you go into a town blind, you've got to scan the horizon as you near the bus station for options. We didn't stop in Grand Rapids, for example, because of hotel location uncertainty. At the next stop, Muskegon, the Holiday Inn was a two minute, very visible hike from the station. The Choice chain offers Greyhound Senior Club members ($5 membership) discounts, but they were never close enough to the bus stations we used.

9. DON'T BUY THEIR PHONE CARDS. I got exactly one local call in Detroit out of my $5 card. Four times out of five, it malfunctioned, and a Greyhound driver explained that each attempt, successful or not, cost 69 cents! By all means have a phone card, to zero in on locations when necessary.

10. Maintain your sense of humor. And avoid big cities on weekends if possible. The Jefferson Lines driver from Rochester, MN to St. Paul was a black militant who played black kitsch for the entire three hour trip. Full blast. When the lady in the front seat complained, he replied, "It's my bus, lady." If he had played Duke Ellington, O.K. But mediocre Motown, ugh. I tried to play the Cannonball Adderley CD a friendly rider from Muskegon to Chicago had given me, to no avail. There's no accounting for nut cases. But then the up side is that Chicagoan whose conversation about jazz history prompted him to gift me as he left the bus at 94th and Dan Ryan to go to his Hyde Park apartment.

Win some, lose some. But in the middle of a gas crisis, Greyhound's lines can be winsome too.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Conquering the Anti-Atlas Mountains

The highlight of my three month ramble around the Mediterranean to celebrate my fiftieth birthday in 1977 was an overnight bus ride from Marrakesh to Tafraoute. I had read in a local French language newspaper in Casablanca that there was an Almond Festival the other side of the Anti-Atlas Mountains. It was a scramble finding the bus in the busy market square of the town renowned as a hippie crossroads. (There were no hippies on this trip, just locals taking short trips on the itinerary. The voyagers were a constantly changing mix.)

With the innocence of a novice African traveler, I was carting a hernia threatening suitcase on unusable wheels. Any sane traveler would be using a backpack under these circumstances. And the poor baggage master staggered as he hoisted my grab bag onto the roof of the twenty seater bus. Because I was trying out my pidgin French on any local who would stand still, he was subjected to the further insult of my jabbering away. A friendly guy, he offered me the jump seat at the front of the bus so I could take better pictures while it was still light.

What a night that was. I was clad in jeans and a T-shirt, perfectly adequate for Marrakesh in February. But the High Atlas mountains. It slowly dawned on me (and the temperature started dropping quickly) that I was in for a night of shivers. Luckily, every half hour or so there was a pit stop for a hot coffee and huddling as close to the brazier as possible. Ill never forget shortly after one such stop about three o’clock in the morning when I snuck a look back at the rest of the travelers. They were all headless! Snugly tucked into their frost-defying jellabas.

And the road that night was an almanac of driving hazards first fog, then rain, the sleet whipping against the front windshield. Skids, sometimes toward abysses I was happy were more or less obscured by the darkness, and ascents so steep the bus shuddered as it went to lower and lower gears. What a ride! As the night lifted I was puzzled by how the driver knew where to go. To my untutored eye, it was only a vast undifferentiated desert.

Then the wonder of the Almond Festival dazzled my astonished eyes. As far as the eye could see in the breaking dawn it was a landscape of pure white. The blossoms seemed unending. Tafraoute was a confusing village but fascinating. It took miming more than my Freshman French to find a place to stay overnight. Chance had it that a sculptor lived there as well. And among my favorite souvenirs from 50 years of traipsing around the globe are small stone sculptures of animals for the Hazoo my collection of crafted animals from anywhere and everywhere.

The bus trip to Agadir on the Atlantic Coast was not memorable. And I stayed at an expensive tourist hotel for a change. My style of traveling has been that every night I spend in a youth hostel or on a moving vehicle earns me a point a night towards a five star hotel. By then I need a bath and a comfortable bed. I become the Duke de Visa, living beyond my means for the nonce. I'm ashamed to confess that I didn’t have the balls to ride the camel that a most persistent driver tried unsuccessfully (and ultimately disgustedly) to talk me into.

Frankly, my month in Morocco was getting me restless. I flew to Tangiers, where I tried without success to find out where Paul Bowles was hanging out. And frustrated by that experience, I easily found the main train station where I plotted out my moves to Oran (hello, Albert Camus!), and Algiers.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Touring in Torino

As a working-class Detroiter who earned his Ph.D. tuition money in Ford, Chrysler and Fisher Body factories, I’ve always kept a special place in my heart for Turin. My first contact with that once-gritty industrial city occurred in Minneapolis at an American Studies convention in 1979, in the form of a Torinese by the name of Naila Clerici, who introduced herself as a specialist in American Indian studies at the University of Genoa.

Huh? Amerinds? University of Genoa? Was this some kind of insider academic joke I didn’t get?

No, the young Italian explained. Christopher Columbus came from Genoa. And we’re dead serious about investigating the long-term effects of his discoveries on the native populations— and, more importantly, what the “conquerors” must learn from the “conquered.” And vice versa. She has parlayed that first shrewd intuition more than 30 years ago into an internationally renowned quarterly with the beguilingly misspelled title "Tepee".

I still relish the memory of 1981, when I pit stopped at Fiat’s Lingotto factory for a conference on Soviet Russian modernism shortly after the Italian architect Renzo Piano had transformed that working place into the vibrant cultural center it now is. I took the last whirl around the roof race track.

It’s not easy to describe how transformed this complex has become. An entirely new hall for industrial fairs. A block long Gallery 8 on the second floor of the former factory, which is basically a shopping center with high-tech playgrounds to keep the pre-shopping-age kids from getting too bored while their elders shop. On the fourth floor, there’s the Giovanni and Marianna Agnelli Pinatothek (he founded Fiat), to display their superb collection as well as traveling shows like the one I saw of the Van Sack design collection. Van Sack is the founder and first director of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, just north of Basel.

The newest attraction is EATALY, a pun on Eat in Italy, a Slow Food folly, where there are seven small restaurants specializing in some kind of Slow Food. I chose "fish", and although the swordfish I ordered was small enough to be dubbed a daggerfish, it was suckably succulent, with small boiled potatoes and a sauce of lemon slices cohabiting with capons. A Merlot from Venezia and slabs of grand white crusty bread (too fat to be called slices) completed my feisty feast, for a piddling 20 euros ($31).

By the way, the epigraph blessing all this Slow Food Malarkey is by my favorite Kentucky pastoralist, Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act.” Damned if it ain’t! I fell as well for a purple T-shirt (15 euros) emblazoned “NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING A PIG,” a sentiment I have long espoused without the benefit of any T-shirt philosophizing.

Naila booked me into the San Maurizio Pensione at 38 euros a night plus four more for a skimpy breakfast (optional). A superb location. (The address is Corso San Maurizio 31, fourth floor. Phone: 11 88 24 34, and ask for Massmiliano, the son who speaks the best English.) The River Po is a few blocks to the south. Out my broad back balcony I can see on a distant southeastern mountain the Sanctus Spiritus Church, where the Savoy royals are buried.

On the balcony facing the street is the best view in all Turin of the Mole Antoneliana, a 19th-Century high-rise folly that began as a synagogue (rejected in a Jewish huff before completion as too goofy!) but now housing the National Cinema Museum, the greatest such I have ever encountered, bar none. And I’ve seen them all! Suffice it to say that the quintessentially antsy Haz spent three solid hours gawking.

The biggest boon is the Number 18 bus, one block to the North—to your right on the Corso San Maurizios as you leave the pension. At the traffic light you cross the Corso. Past the garden on the right side of that cross street you’ll see the bus stop. Tickets in tobacco shops. If you’d turned right at the light, you’d soon find a friendly Nigerian running a little grocery store. He lets you use his phones for small change.

Back to the No. 18 bus. It passes innumerable, indispensable stops such as the art gallery of the Academia Albertina. Later on, the Jazz Club. Eventually you reach Lingotto— in a half hour. And at Corso Victorio Emmanuelle, if you take the 35 bus instead of the 18, you get to Porto Nuova, from which most European trains leave. Exception is the TGV to Paris, which you get at Porta Susa—one stop from Nuova by Metro. Around the corner from the Mole there’s a Torino Info center. Use it to start with.

Since Turin is the Design Capital of Europe this year, you’ll find free book-length introductions to newly placed infrastructure as well as a plethora of super experiences in Turin and throughout the Piedmont region during the entire year.

It was the 6,000 architects from the entire world holding their triennial congress that brought me there. (Tokyo is next in 2011.) It’s as close to heaven as this serial sinner expects to get.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Indecisive Moments: Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helmut Newton

Cartier-Bresson famously defined the art of photography as mastering the decisive moment, wherein a broad human empathy trumps necessary but not by itself sufficient technical expertise as the key to significance. On the other hand, if Weegee infamously made a career on the celebrity mug shot, Helmut Newton defined his as the triumph of the muff shot. It is instructive to compare these two career trajectories by juxtaposing in one's mind's eye two simultaneous Berlin exhibitions, Cartier-Bresson at the Martin-Gropius-Bau near the Anhalter Bahnhof (ended August 18, 2004) with Newton's at the new Museum of Photography opposite the Zoo Bahnhof (indefinitely).

It is best to begin with a problem. Newton never saw a woman's pudendum that didn't turn him on. He notoriously even created a shot in which his photographer wife is portrayed as contemplating him and a muff contrived through the use of a huge mirror. That surely defines the indecisive moment of extreme manipulation.

Now it happens that the mons veneris has always seemed to me the most extraordinary and incendiary part of a woman's body. Over the years I grew to love the intimacy of nuzzling, sucking, and finally fucking such a glorious reality of the female anatomy. But after a recent forced march through a forests of Newton's muffled images, I wanted to cry, Muff, Enough Already.

Now, believe me, it takes a lot of muff to turn me off. The more I thought about my entirely unanticipated turn off, the more I saw that Newton was using the mons as a means not an end in itself. A means to establish himself as the most provocative because revealing photographer of his age. Trouble is, he has desecrated that nearly sacred object by exploiting it instrumentally.

His claim to fame was his honesty, like that other creator who assembles hundreds and hundreds of one-day nudists to motivate repetitive cliches about the glory of the human body, and how we shouldn't be ashamed of it. Alas, the cumulative effect of Newton's gallery of roguish bushes is to simulate the Cum shot come-ons I have to flush out of my e-mails every morning. Nude blond throwing up in a toilet, exposed muff. Nude lady for hire, looking terminally despondent. And so on, and so on. Until the eye blurs from excess of pseudo-compassion. Newton exploits the exposed pudendum, objectifying it, to his own greater glory. Well, I find his demi-monde of fashion designers, movie stars, and street walkers excruciatingly boring. All those indecisive moments.

Cartier-Bresson is an entirely different story. He achieves what Edward Steichen only tried to in his MOMA omni show (now on permanent display in a castle in Luxembourg, his birthplace): a comprehensive diachronic documentary of the human race, warts and wonders alike. He makes the most commonplace of human activities marvelously luminous. He makes you want to love the subjects of his loving clicks. Newton makes you merely want to consider fucking them. Time will tell which photographer will dominate the consciousness of the twenty-first century. For our sakes, I hope it's Henri rather than Helmut.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Monday, 16 February 2009

From Cardinal Meissner to Archie Williams

One serendipity I won’t soon forget happened in the fall of 1985. I was in line for lunch at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there was a priest right ahead of me. As an ex-Catholic I like to tease the clergy. So I said playfully, Father, if you give me an easy general confession, I'll take you to lunch. A lady just ahead of us in line got the joke and giggled. I included her in for understanding that crude joke.

That lady turned out to be Mrs. Eleanor Milner, wife of General Milner commanding our forces in Berlin. But she was flying low that noon because in the evening her twenty-one-year-old son was starring that night on Broadway as the lead in The River, a musical based on Mark Twain's tale about Huckleberry Finn. She said they were having Joachim Meissner in for supper on October 4. Would I like to join them? Would I ever! Now that could be a major tease. The Cardinal Archbishop of Berlin, formerly a banker in Erfurt, was the only other active red hat besides Pope John Paul II, on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

I took down the number and phoned it as soon as I hopped off the train from Frankfurt at the Zoo train station. The American captain who answered the base phone sounded like a Nazi! Professor Hazard, he announced, like a man promulgating a battle plan, a military taxi, green in color, license plate Able Baker 23 Charlie, will meet you in twenty minutes at the corner of Hardensburgstrasse and Joachimsallee. It will?, I weakly replied, having expected to take public transportation to meet the General and his wife. And the General wondered, he went on, if you would like to stay overnight at his Residence. I could hear the capital R in Residence in his voice.

I had already signed in at a local Youth Hostel, but I gamely opened up my train station locker and took out a camera bag and a tote to simulate luggage. The butler was not misled, however, as he quickly took me to the guest room, which was larger than my home in Philadelphia! And he quickly piled on briefing papers about the Deutsche Bank vice-president and the Cardinal who were to share the table with me. The house was a glorious Jugendstil villa on Pacelli-Allee, built in 1912 for the head of the Deutsche Bank. When General Maxwell Taylor was looking for digs, he saluted this one.

The Cardinal was a charming mix of worldly spirituality. He talked blithely about the chrism cramp he was suffering from, having just confirmed a church full of Lithuanians in Vilnius. And when the Pope appointed him Archbishop of Cologne, he revealed his truly funky style. The Koelners had the tradition of choosing their own bishops, and each one seemed more leftie to an exasperated Pope. He'd teach them who sat in the Holy See by appointing Meissner! At his first press conference, he announced first of all to his pissed off flock that he had just purchased a burial plot in the Catholic Cemetery. Not the retiring type, Joachim Meissner.By the way, the Cardinal had brought a new East German book on Matthias Grunewald, who just happened to be the favorite painter of my daughter-in-law the painter. I decided I'd check out Check Point Charlie and buy it for her as an early Christmas gift.

Meanwhile at breakfast the following morning, Mrs. Milner told the General she had no use for her chauffered Mercedes this morning. Was it all right if Professor Hazard used it? Sure, the easy-going General had allowed. He had won my respect and affection for not being ashamed of not being West Point! He was proud of being a graduate of Saint Bonaventure's in upstate New York. I love people who are proud about not being vain! In any case, it was a new experience for me, the Detroit prole, who had helped build many cars for Ford and Chrysler, working my way through the Jesuit University of Detroit, but never had been chauffered before. First I wanted to go to Spandau Prison, to interview Rudolf Hess or Albert Speer. The much traveled chauffeur allowed as how that was impractical. Even illegal. I then had a bright idea. How about the Olympic Stadium? Full speed ahead.

The year before in San Francisco, Phil Mumma, the editor of the Oakland Museum magazine (and a former basketball star at Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette) asked me to write a piece on the history of the original and the 1896 renewed Olympics. And when I did that, he had a further suggestion. Everybody knows how Jesse Owens rankled Hitler by running off with so many gold medals. But not so many had even heard of San Jose State runner Archie Williams, who garnered two golds in the 400 and 800 meter relays. He was now a retired Air Force Colonel teaching computer skills to rich kids up in Marin County.

What a story he turned out to be. Archie wanted to be a civil engineer, which meant he had to transfer to UC, Berkeley. He was a serious student, taking no gut courses like many student athletes. He was stunned when he heard the admissions counselor at Berkeley warning him away from civil engineering. He said there were only two majors suitable for your people: theology, to keep your people out of jail. Or law, springing them out when they're incarcerated.

Archie refrained from punching out this dodo, and went ahead with his civil engineering degree, graduating on time in 1938. Only one interview from General Electric. No job. So Archie went across the Bay to Oakland and learned to fly, ultimately becoming one of the instructors for the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. They were the elite group that the Southern generals who then ran our armed forces wanted to keep away from battle because the Niggers couldn't be trusted. Eleanor Roosevelt, bless her soul, got wind of this embargo and promptly went down to Alabama and demanded a flight from one of the Tuskegee boys. Shortly after, they were on their way to North Africa and eventually to the Sicily invasion.

Ironically, they were so good at protecting bombers and conducting raids that eventually when they didn't get assigned to a battle, the generals shouted, Where are those fucking Niggers when we need them. Archie became a meteorologist, and retired a colonel after twenty years. When I had finished writing the piece for The Pacific Sun, Archie had me over to his house to look over his Olympic memorabilia. And the paper ran his favorite photo as the cover: Leni Riefenstahl on one knee, filming Archie breaking the tape as he won the 400 gold. I've never had a better visual in fifty years of journalism.

So I had a surprise in store for Archie. I loped around inside the Olympic Stadium until I found what I wanted in wonderful Jugendstil/Deco letters: ARCHIE WILLIAMS: I made a photo and mailed it as a postcard to him out in Marin County. His thank you note made me think it was pure gold for him again.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Da Vinci Code? Opus Dei? Secular Humanist?

I’ll leave it to Biblical scholars to sort out the textual contradictions and ambiguities that surround the Da Vinci Code fiction. I agree with Ian McKellen that the Bible should add a "This is only a fiction" disclaimer, with folks walking on water and other "mysterious" events. It’s time we stopped giving Evangelical Christians a free pass on the credibilities and incredulities of their allegedly sacred texts.

One benign effect of the Islamic revolution now threatening the West is that it reminds us how similar old-time Christianity was to the current Islamic fanatics. I mean, secular humanists never burned people for their beliefs. (And don’t give me the chopped logic of Communists and Fascists as secular humanists. That is the fatuous myth that Benedict XVI now propagates in his zeal to retrieve Europe from its secular beliefs.)

It took Europe centuries to civilize itself away from religions that killed to "protect" their beliefs. When we abhor the madness of an Afghan convert to Christianity being threatened with death for his new beliefs, we tend to forget that that was the universal Catholic response before the Reformation; and the Protestant’s as well after that transformation. Only the Enlightenment shrove Christians of all persuasions of their lethal beliefs.

And recidivism is always possible as when we see Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson speculate how God is punishing America for its ‘sins’ of homosexuality. If anything, God should be punishing America for Bush’s glib and all too showy religious incantations in support of his political base. Karl Rovian cynicism is not theologically admirable. To question Max Cleland’s patriotism is truly diabolical.

But secular humanists reserve the right to condemn what they regard as religious recidivism, such as Opus Dei’s sick masochism of self-flagellation and wearing a metal girdle that gives great pain to the leg it encircles— offered up for the Poor Souls, as the nuns used to tell me—i.e., sinners who are literally burning in Purgatory for their ethical failings on earth. (The really unlucky ones, who didn’t get to Confession on time, would burn eternally, ending up in Hell.)

Can you really believe and worship a God who would be such a sadist? Not me. Catholic theologians have lately hustled by saying the hellfire was only metaphorical. Absence of God’s love is what really burned, they now glibly reason.

And the masochistic nonsense that characterizes Opus Dei makes me suspect that a Maria Magdalen/Jesus liaison isn’t beyond belief. For Opus Dei’s masochism is deeply involved in the Church’s fear of sexual liberty and pleasure. Only God knows what the earliest Christians believed as they painfully transformed their Jewish traditions into new faiths. But we know now that celibacy is an adolescent affront to the God-given pleasures of sex. Talk about unnatural! Whipping away carnal temptations? The recent pedophile scandals reveal how sick these apostles of self-punishment really are.

And when Pope Pius IX finally got around to declaring himself infallible, what kind of doctrines did he proclaim? The Immaculate Conception! God may have been generous enough to share in our humanity, but He would only do it if his mother were immaculately conceived, without taint from the original sin of Adam and Eve. This sort of selective conception is deception, if you ask me. If He were generous enough to give his only begotten Son to suffer and die (more masochism) to save mankind from its sins, why would he want his mother to be less than human?

Of course, the folks at Opus Dei enjoy the right in free societies to believe whatever cockamamie theories they want to and to get off on punishing their bodies. But secular humanists have the right to think them recidivist nuts. There’s enough untreated misery in the world without their multiplying it in their callow search for sainthood.

And we secular humanists reserve the right to honor and emulate our own heroes. Not pious prattlers, but plain folks who try to relieve the misery of their fellows, Catholics like Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers. Let Benedict XVI prance around in his royal robes, talking humility all the while. Let him study again how evilly his Church has behaved over the ages, how corrupt in its pursuit of the real evils of masochism and celibacy. Talk about False Gods!

Incidentally I think Jesus would have made one heck of a father, small "f." His ethical teachings convince me of that. And Mary Magdalene would have made a fine mother. The more I think of them, the more they seem to be a great First Couple. Kids would be lucky to have had such parents. But try to explain to a celibate / celebrity Pope about what it takes to make a great parent. It takes much more than a so-called Holy Father.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Emilio Ambasz: Pragmatic Poet

My first personal encounter with Emilio Ambasz was deliciously serendipitous. I had just returned from an astonishing exhibition at the Design School in Zurich of the pioneer modernist bridge builder, Robert Maillart. I had been reading it up to New York on the train from Philly. I had arrived before any of the staff, and was killing time at the locked elevator up to his atelier. Suddenly this smartly tailored man appeared with a key. I asked him if he knew how I could meet Emilio Ambasz for an appointment. He smirked genially, winked, and said You have. A bit boggled by this happy turn of events, I grabbed at the straw of the book I had been reading. I've just returned from seeing this extraordinary Robert Maillart exhibition in Zurich. Are you familiar with his work?

He pointed me to one of his sleekly designed Vertebra chairs and replied, I guess you could say so. He's what got me into architecture. I was rooting through architectural books in a store in Resistencia, Argentina (my home town) when I came across Max Bill. He's the man who is said to have continued the Bauhaus tradition after the war at the Design School in Ulm. I learned in that book that I could be a civil engineer and architect, just like Maillart had been. That led me to apply to Princeton where the leading American authority on Maillart, Donald Billington taught. I applied, with a goofy kind of three D application, and got in.

Ambasz was no ordinary student. At the end of his first year, Billington posed to Emilio on the spot some complicated equations on structure. He solved them easily. Billington announced: Nice going. You're now in graduate school! He had always been that kind of an easy overachiever. After Princeton, he was appointed the head of architecture and design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where for ten years he invented fresh ways of looking at design and architecture.

Take his Taxi Project. It dawned on this world traveler that it would be a good thing for the automobile industry if they all started looking at better ways of designing the worlds taxis. So he solicited opinions from all the manufacturers throughout the world. Except when he got to the president of General Motors, he got back a snippy snotty reject which amounted to Young Man, we sold 55,000 cabs last year and we don't need any counsel from you. Which Ambasz printed in the catalog. To the highest GM dudgeon, including a law suit. The judge had only one question: Did you write that letter? Yes. Case dismissed. Except that the head of the Board at MOMA, one William Paley, Chairman of CBS, had told Emilio he didn't like the idea of the Taxi Project at all, at all. That didn't stop the intrepid Argentinian from getting his seed money from one Dr. Frank Stanton, aka as the brains of that same CBS network. So shall we say that Mr. Ambasz has what they call South of the border, los cojones. He doesn't look for fights. He just sticks by his ideas, come hell or high water.

I asked him if it wasn't a bore to be organizing exhibitions at MOMA when he could be out there designing buildings of his own. Not at all. Its been great fun helping other architects to get their good things under way. When he finally started doing his own thinghis first big project was modernizing the Beaux Arts Museum of Art in Grand Rapids, MI. In that transaction he became chums with the local congressman, one Gerald Ford, later to sub for the ousted Richard Nixon, a relationship that stood him in good stead during the Taxi Project! And in the architecture culture that is characterized by silent civil wars among competing designers, he is curiously above it all. He even won a Japanese commission although he came in with the highest projected budget because the local media staged a protest on his behalf because they knew his solution was more poetic than the low ballers. And he is the polymath to end all polymathery. I talked about sitting on his chair. When I was curious as to who designed the Cummins Diesel engine strangely gracing his office. I did, he replied proudly.

With offices on three continents, EA continues to display that meld of pragmatism and poetry I so much admire in his work. No Titanium Gehry flamboyance for this reticent genius. When confronted with the facts of summer life in hotter than hell San Antonio, EA went underground with his Conservatory. No Richard Meier signature white metal panels. Each job demands an idiosyncratic solution. No goofy beams that don't meet a la Peter Eisenman. Every detail is quietly arranged to do the work of the client. No chest thumping architect he.

Ambasz is a creative servant, not a Star architect in search of a Signature that guarantees the next assignment. In the noisy cacophony of contemporary architecture, Emilio is a reticent genius, a soft persuasive voice that convinces the thoughtful. I've never seen an EA that didn't lift my spirit. And I've never seen an EA that reminded me of another EA. Each work is sui generis.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Black & White

Greenbelt Knollsters aspired to a purer level of openness. It's absurd to think we were perfect. You may think you were. I certainly wasn't. Take this example. As a hyperLib I used to think blacks like Louie Armstrong and Langston Hughes were not "black" enough.

At the First World Negro Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal, I was having drinks with Wole Soyinka and Langston Hughes. As I smugly thought to myself how "White" Hughes was, he opened a new book of Leroi Jones--to tout him to Wole, Nigeria's Nobel Laureate, as the fresh new hope of Black American Lit.

I blushed silently. And learned then to not pretend to be more "black" than I really was!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Absurdities in Architecture

Humanists of my generation (1927-) are familiar with John Silber’s single-mindedness. This Lone Star State philosopher turned college administrator had a very visible mind of his own—and often inflicted it, effectively. But a critic of absurd architecture? You have to read his engaging book, Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art (The Quantuck Lane Press, 2007, $27.50) to appreciate this new dimension in Silber’s single-mindedness.

To begin with, more than a few will be as astonished as I to learn that his German architect/sculptor father immigrated to St. Louis in 1902 to help with the German pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair. They won’t be surprised that the old man was as demanding of his clients and contractors as his son was of students and administrators.

Silber brags about incidents in which the architect father insisted on three coats of varnish for his doors and when one contractor tried to slip by with only two, his father’s No.2 pencil marks revealed that mini-fraud. Silber Junior contends that errant contractor ended up a partisan for that unbending adherence to standards. His father created a flourishing business in Texas until the depression (1931-41). Thereupon his old Good Rep brought him more business. Philosopher John loved to work with his dad on tiny architectural details. And they spent many vacations savoring architectural monuments on global trips. It’s clear that philosophy’s gain was Texas architecture’s loss.

Now I don’t come to this hunt without dogs of my own. My interdisciplinary Ph.D (specialty American Lit) includes a field in American art and architecture. And my only pedagogical innovation (Write a term paper on a Great American Building) drew the sneers of my architecturally ignorant humanist peers. I still believe my students who began by distinguishing styles in physical structures became more perceptive to differences in verbal styles.

Further, a democratic culture must tutor everyman in critical standards in all the arts. Indeed I have spent the last decade in Weimar, Germany explaining how hyper-aesthetic “operators” like Philip C. Johnson have corrupted discourse on Walter Gropius’ vision to bring good modern design to “the working classes”. As a homeless Blue Collar Detroit Depression child, that remains a primary conviction of mine in a culture where 90% of our design pros finagle for 10% of the world’s population—a formula sufficiently explaining the current disasters in our man-made landscape.

Indeed, it turns out I have my own Anti-Pritzker List: Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Daniel Liebeskind, and, after reading Silber, Josep Lluis Sert, the Spaniard who made so many useless buildings at Harvard. What the anti-Pritzkers have in common are idiosyncratic shticks which they blindly apply to utterly diverse assignments. For Gehry it’s CAD applied titanium, for Meier it’s men’s urinal modern on everything in sight, for Liebeskind it’s obscurantist drivel about the Star of David, on whose razor-sharp silly edges I have skinned my knees in Berlin, Osnabruck and Manchester—for the last time.

As Silber conclusively reveals, Sert makes no distinction between a law school, a high residence hall, or a student union. And he builds in Cambridge MA as if he’s in Madrid SP. Results: Main entrances and patio student unions unusable in winter and structures expensively unprotected from the weather. How did we dig ourselves into this bottomless pit? Arrogant architects who ignore the clients’ needs to flaunt their own cute signatures for the next sucker client with more money than good sense—and a hunger for the notoriety of being associated with an infamous building. We don’t need more “cute” signatures. We need acute attention to a client’s needs. Silber’s book is a must read for all undereducated administrators unwittingly sponsoring useless buildings.

Heh, let’s reserve our attention and admiration for the sweetly (and satisfyingly) absurd and self-financed Follies like the Watts Tower and Le Palais Ideal. And leave the striving up to US—on the Silber Standard.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Getting to Know Louie Kahn

How’s this for Serendipity? Because Greenbelt Knoll, an experimental interracial community in Holmesburg, Northeast Philadelphia, is celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year, I found to my delight that I’ve been living for almost fifty years in a house designed by Louie Kahn, that quiet, quirky architectural genius of twentieth century Philadelphia. We knew from the start that our community had won an AIA award for siting for Bishop-Young Architects, by deftly inserting nineteen houses on the short cul-de-sac Longford Street, off Holme Avenue, leaving our glory of 100 foot century old trees to cool our summers and gladden our falls.

But Louie Kahn? Scuttlebutt has it that he and Oscar Stonorov designed the adjacent wartime workers housing as Pennypack Gardens. But its blue collar ethnics kept blacks out longer than Levittown. (Indeed, I have yet to see one break in their color line.) Not so for Morris Milgram, the leading promoter of integrated U.S. housing after World War II. We just learned about Kahn when the Historical Commission considered a proposal to make our settlement historically registered.

Cannily, Morris (who lived there with Grace, his city planner wife, and two children) got Robert N.C. Nix, the first black U.S. Congressman from Philly, and the Reverend Leon Sullivan, the Lion from Zion (and his wife Grace and their two children!), and Roosevelt Barlow, the first black fire captain, (his wife Virginia and son Ray, now a homicide detective) as lead tenants, steadily maintaining the half white, half black ratio throughout the fifty years.

We lost one house when Jim Rogers, a wonderful neighbor, proved not too good a preservationist. The playwright Charles Fuller moved in some years back, and bought the Rogers residence for one of his sons. He now has the great idea of turning that bulldozed site into a community park, with outdoor furniture designed by James Camp, the internationally renowned artist who had also been an original resident.

I have always been a wildly enthusiastic partisan of Kahn’s ouevre. Not only did he create fresh buildings, but he was as far away from becoming a self-regarding Starchitect as it’s possible to be in the Pritzker Era and still stay out of bankruptcy court. I had only one, unforgettable hour with him when I hosted a TV series, “Man-Made Landscapes,” for WFIL-TV in 1959, the year we moved into 8 Longford Street.

Kahn was in the midst of final plans for the Jonas Salk Center for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, CA, and he brought along the Salk maquette, and was eager to expatiate on how he planned to bring the scientists and humanists together by designing the library in such a way that both had to meet physically if not intellectually. (The squabble over the gulf between the two parts of the clerisy in C.P.Snow’s Two Cultures was then dominating faculty chatter.) Kahn got so carried away by his own rhetoric that he started to escalate right out of the TV camera’s range. It was the only time I ever told a genius to sit down, NOW! He blushed and complied.

Some years later, when I finally got to check out the finished building, I stopped the first white lab-coated person I encountered and asked him the question I had been wondering about ever since the broadcast. “Did Mr. Kahn’s dream of getting the scientists and humanists together work?” Without a hitch, the scientist replied: “Only until Jacob Bronowski died.” For those who were not PBS documentary buffs, he was the mathematician who played egghead compere in the BBC TV series, “Ascent of Man”. As it happens I was the education adviser for Time Life Films (1968-72).

It was the sinecure of my life. Every Tuesday I trekked into New York to mark a copy of the coming week’s “Radio Times” (the BBC’s TV Guide) so they could record in black and white the programs we thought had potential for schools, museums, or PBS. The next week we’d screen them, me and a handful of salesmen, always starting,for mental health reasons, with the latest episode of Monty Python. Our managing director (that’s how BBC-ish we’d become),Peter Robeck, got wind of this bottom-line-mindlessness and chided me. “I’m not paying you a $1000 a month to watch that trash,Hazard.” “But, Peter,” I lamely replied,”that’s what our upper-middlebrow viewers dig!” Luckily, WTTW/Chicago got the word and bought the series, getting us off the fiscal hook.

The summer of 72 Peter had us all assemble in London for a “seminar”. What he hoped would happen was that the Brits would learn to sell better and faster, and the Amis would get a tad more cultivated. A highpoint at Ealing Studio was rushes for the yet to be finished “Ascent of Man”. And Jacob was there to tout it. He explained how reluctant he had been to take so much time from his Math research and his love for William Blake. (Bronowski didn’t need Kahn’s melding library to mix science and humane studies: his idiosyncratic career exemplified such mixing at its apogee.)

He explained how Aubrey Singer, the BBC man in charge of High Culture, had bullied him to committing himself to the series, slyly implying that it was a mitzvah he had a Jrwish responsibility to accept. Then Bronowski explained how he forced himself to sit at the feet of the network’s premier cameraman, one Kenneth Macgowan—to learn how to talk through a TV camera. After the screening I walked up to him to express my appreciation for the results of this high class tutoring. “Macgowan’s tutelage,” I said, “reminds me of my favorite aphorism from William Blake: 'He who would do me good, must do it in minute particulars!’” His eyes literally blazed as he agreed, “Precisely, precisely!”

I had inadvertently arranged for what turned out to be the intellectual high point of the London seminar by organizing a party in a girl friend’s eighth story flat overlooking Regent’s Park. (She was a pal of the newly elected Irish bus inspector mayor of Camden, Paddy O’Connor, which I assume had something to do with her 8 pounds a month rent in this high class venue.) I invited two of the network’s biggest eggheads, both Viennese Jews who had fled Hitler very effectively indeed, Stephen Hearst then head of the Third Programme, and Martin Esslin who invented the term “absurd drama”.

I was still dumbfounded by the autodidact Phyllis O’Leary, a blue collar social worker for retired Camden Town’s golden oldies. She worked her damnedest to get them free winter trips to Spain, or failing that, color TV consolation prizes. She had taken me, an English Department chairman, to Whitechapel Gallery and given me a dazzling improvised lecture on the PreRaphaelites! It confirmed my overoptimism during the Beatles Era that only lack of opportunity kept Phyllises of the world poor and illiterate.

Louis Kahn was another O’Leary. Coming from Latvia at age 5, leading a hard scrabble life in Philly, burning himself almost fatally in a freak accident. His bastard son Nathaniel’s marvelous film about his father is touching in the way it juxtaposes Kahn’s sweetly tortured private life and how “the making of noble spaces” so consumed him that he died of a heart attack, alone, in the toilet of Penn Station coming back from Dakka in Bangladesh.

His masterpieces—The Yale Art Center in New Haven, the Kimball Art Center in Fort Worth, the Library of Phillips Exeter, the Parliament in Bangladesh (not to forget Greenbelt Knoll!)—are not shticks like Gehry’s Bilbao or Meier’s Getty. My filmmaker son Michael recently reminded me of Louie’s incontrovertible aphorism: "A room without natural light is not architecture.” We even forgive him for the fact that scientists at the Richards Medical Center at Penn can’t forget: their noxious fumes don’t exhaust sufficiently.

Michael’s friend in St. Paul, architect Walter Johanson (a student of Kahn’s at Penn) sadly notes that the Richard scientists find the natural light destructive of their close examinations of data and they crudely block the fenestration with a disgusting array of impediments! We don’t ask our architects to be infallible, just that they’re educable! And the attempted splendid water course that runs down the center of the esplanade at the Salk Center is already scuzzy from scum accumulating from unsuccessful water circulation. These venial sins don’t keep us from exulting in Kahn’s ouevre, even though we wish he had made more gems in Philly. We love him retroactively but have to travel the world to relish his creativity. Unless of course you’re lucky enough to live at Greenbelt Knoll!

Friday, 6 February 2009

A Flop as a Cultural Diplomat

Encouraged by the total support of “24 Hours of Unseen American Television” by the Royal College of Art in London during the spring semester 1968, I approached Dr. Howard Springer, Executive Secretary of the Commonwealth Education Union, to sponsor my showing the hour-long film, Nigeria: Culture in Transition at their annual meeting scheduled that year for Lagos, Nigeria, still the country’s capital.

I had been pioneering the rubric, “International English Literature,” ever since I had added Canadian and Caribbean Lit in English to African American studies. When I broached the subject of International English Lit in the Canadian Journal of Commonwealth Lit, I was mocked as a covert CIA agent! Absurd allegation.

I had recently founded The CIE with inherited money, with the mock goal of subverting the real CIA with world English poetry. I was serious, in a playful way! My 1973 “Wake Up to Whitman!” calendar had forecast that strategy with Chinua Achebe’s elegy to the promising Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, a victim of the Biafran War. We wanted the other Commonwealth countries to follow Wole Soyinka’s lead and start to create a global library of International English Lit. “Commonwealth Lit plus U.S.” sounded subversive to the touchy Canadian!

Springer told me to feel free—“just don’t get in the way” was the way he put it. An announcement that there would be a free flight to Kano to see how the Emir’s enlightened son and heir apparent was creating cultural news. My first encounter with Islam. As the plane revved up to leave, there was one free seat free. I took it, and little did I know that the Educational Minister from Ghana arrived a few minutes after our flight’s departure—enraged that his place had been taken by an American freebooter! Only later did I learn of his setting the CID in search of my bona fides.

Some days later, the film was shown at the American Embassy to a reasonable audience. But at the end I was puzzled by the existence of a separate group, identified for me by others as a hostile minority. I took a scary ride back to the Federal Palace Hotel with the Lagos Times reporter covering the screening. At the hotel I was met by three CID officers who wanted to examine my hotel room.

They turned on my Uher tape recorder first, to hear the voice of Major General Gowon, the head of state. “Why?” they asked suspiciously. For God’s sake, he opened the conference with this speech! An hour later, after more such fatuous queries, I was led to a police cruiser, and my camera, recorder and audio and film reels confiscated. As we drove in darkness to the police station (the Biafran war!), I suddenly remembered that yesterday a BBC stringer had tried to buy my gear. Because of the war, he hadn’t been able to use normal access. I began to believe I was going to be dumped for my gear! I’ve never been so relieved to be arrested! For two hours I was grilled about my bringing a film with a war prisoner as M.C. (Wole had been imprisoned for trying to settle the Biafran War personally.)

It wasn’t until a few days later at a Canadian celebration that their Ambassador shamed them into returning my gear. It was six months later in London before I got the developed film. I was a flop as a Cultural Diplomat!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Winter Wheat

When all else is somber fall
red, russet, black and yellow
your insolent patch of spring
defies finalities and shades.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Huxtable's Humane Hustle

For going on a century, Ada Louise Huxtable (nee Nachmann) has been savouring the Beaux Arts pleasures of growing up well tutored (father, novelist; uncle, rabbi) in Central Park West New York. And now she has an omnium gatherum to attest to this mainly self-education, On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change, Walker and Company, 2008, $35.00.) Her tenth volume! New York pundit Paul Goldberger, none the less, with friendly hyperbole, exaggerates her role in the emergence of architectural journalism in America: "Before Ada Louise Huxtable,” he strains, "architecture was not part of public dialog. Today it is, and she is overwhelmingly responsible for this.” (Book cover blurb.)

Surely this demeans the de facto creation of architectural media by Peter Blake, whose Aryanized nom de plume obscures his flight from Nazi Germany and real architectural training as an American refugee. And I was amused to learn that she got her first New York Times assignment when her “predecessor” Aline Loucheimhad the good luck to marry Eero Saarinen.

Indeed, there is a happily amateurish aspect to her commentary as when she thrilled at the experience of overnighting at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. My experience there was 180 degrees different. I had driven overnight on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in my new Honda, planning to “storm” my favorite architectural achievement en route to the AIA annual convention in Cincinnati. At breakfast outside Bear Run, I scanned the Sunday Post-Gazette for what might be happening in Pittsburgh since I planned to park my car there and Greyhound overnight to Cincy, where I had a long delayed liaison with their Art Deco gem at Union Station.

To my astonished delight, Carnegie Mellon was staging a major retrospective of my favorite twentieth century artist, Sonia Delaunay! What a day it would. I was met at the door of Falling Water by a loving couple training in Chicago with no less my friend and tutor than their current boss Bertrand Goldberg, the most prestigious architect to have studied at the Bauhaus, in Mies’ last class. I loved their buzz about their boss. But I was there to honor someone greater!

My first surprise was that I, no giant at 5’ 8”, had to stoop to enter the door frames without clunking my skull. That sly squirt, I exclaimed silently. The man who wore high heels and a pork pie hat to dissimulate his lack of stature, had made his dinky self the module! There was more entertainment ahead. The man who claimed the hearth must be the heart of a home made made his so limited that it couldn’t heat a meal hot enough to eat! Not to worry: the crane to bring the great crock pot over the fire couldn’t swing it. I call it now his Crackpot. Heh, nobody’s perfect!

But I remembered then Edgar Kaufmann’s enjoinder that he have his engineers check out the math of his glorious looking cantilevers. And Wright’s outrage that his genius be questioned. Alas, it turned out decades later that Falling Water was falling into the local waters! And that as a Pennsylvania taxpayer, I resented the gratuitous, if much delayed, vindication of Kauffmann's prescient judgment! Ada said nothing about this. She just thrilled at her snoozing among the stars.

This reminded me of the unacknowledged scandal of the Icons of Modernism. Falling Water (1935) is no longer habitable. It’s a Visitors Center. Corbu’s suite at Weissenhof (1927) has recently been designated a VC! Mies’ “Farnsworth House” (1950) has just been declared a VC! Dedicated to his genius as a designer. Come on! Why all these salutes to Failure? I’m reminded of Mies’s sneering at Philip C. Johnson’s “Glass House” as looking like a “hot dog stand at night”!

Similarly, I was surprised that Ada aspired to evaluate Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia from mere pictures. (She convincingly attested to the stateside Aalto’s she had relished for credible rationales. But there I was in Helsinki, on a pious odyssey honoring the centennial of his birth, dismayed on a Sunday morning constitutional, that all the travertine cladding had been removed because that stone couldn’t take Finnish winters and dangerous shards had been falling on tourists. (CAN’T HAVE THAT!) It was a sentimental centennial time and the Finns faced a choice: granite, which was winter worthy, or thicker travertine with better adhesive even though this ”solution” would only last a few years. The Finns weren’t taking it for granite.

After breakfast, I hiked to the Finnish Architecture Museum, where a centennial tribute had just opened! Its epigraph was pure AA: “Never forget, architects can make mistakes.” As much as I enjoy ALH, I find her much too credulous with her Icons. It’s the corrigible humanness of AA that most appeals to me.

Monday, 2 February 2009


Shabbiest sumacs
blaze fall's trail.
New England's still
a town meeting of trees--
one leaf, one vote.

Sunday, 1 February 2009